A little of this and a little of that

So you think that it’s just a tale of days gone by?

This has been on YouTube since 2009 but I just saw it this week and loved it. Very clever.

A Dangerous Firebrand

We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him “meek and mild,” and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies. To those who knew him, however, he in no way suggested a milk-and-water person; they objected to him as a dangerous firebrand. True, he was tender to the unfortunate, patient with honest inquirers, and humble before heaven; but he insulted respectable clergymen by calling them hypocrites; he referred to King Herod as “that fox”; he went to parties in disreputable company and was looked upon as a “gluttonous man and a wine-bibber, a friend of publicans and sinners” . . . when confronted with neat dialectical traps, he displayed a paradoxical humor that affronted serious-minded people, and he retorted by asking disagreeably searching questions that could not be answered by rule of thumb. He was emphatically not a dull man in his human lifetime, and if he was God, there can be nothing dull about God either.

Dorothy Sayers (essayist, playright and translator of Dante’s Divine Comedy) “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged is the Official Creed of Christendom.” The Sunday Times, April, 2, 1938

Flannery and The Hillbilly Thomists

This was one of my favorite passages from Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journal, published a few years ago:

You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.

O’Connor was the original “hillbilly Thomist” and she referred to herself as such. So what exactly is this type of individual?

In 1955, the southern author Flannery O’Connor said of herself, “Everybody who has read Wise Blood thinks I’m a hillbilly nihilist, whereas. . .I’m a hillbilly Thomist.” She said that her fiction was concerned with the ways grace is at work among people who do not have access to the sacraments. The Thomist (one who follows the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas) believes that the invisible grace of God can be at work in visible things, just as the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, in the person of Christ. (source)

A group of Dominicans calling themselves The Hillbilly Thomists released an album this week and it sounds very cool. I love the old-timey pose they struck for the album cover.

From C.C. Pecknold at First Things:

But after nearly four years of performing, they’ve now produced their first album, and it is a veritable feast of Bluegrass banjo bliss! The twelve-song album includes nineteenth- and twentieth-century bluegrass classics, such as Jefferson Hascal’s “Angel Band” (prominently featured in the Cohen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?), as well as original bluegrass arrangements of hymns such as “Amazing Grace” and “What Wondrous Love Is This.”

Many of the songs chosen for the album emphasize the theme of pilgrimage, and the vocal harmonies of songs like “Angel Band” remind us of our heavenly destination. From the opening track, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” we learn about how sweet it is to walk “in this pilgrim way.” The beautifully produced music video that promotes the new album features Br. Simon Teller’s pitch-perfect rendition of the pilgrim’s ballad, and the fourth track, “Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” which hints at the way Dominicans have understood their witness as a joyful sign of contradiction in a world that is passing away.

I’ve sampled a few tracks on iTunes and liked what I heard. While I’m not an avid bluegrass fan, thanks to Alison Kraus I listen to my fair share. They’ve already sold out of their physical inventory of CDs, but it can be ordered in digital format by way of iTunes and Amazon by visiting their page here.

Speaking of St. Thomas, how about a pint?

Matt Fradd recently began a podcast that has become quite successful called “Pints with Aquinas”. As I spend most of my social media time on Twitter these days that is where I first stumbled across his new podcast venture. I’ve not yet had time to listen to any but have a few downloaded and plan to give a listen this weekend. I’m a huge fan of “The Dumb Ox” as Aquinas was known, and have dipped my toes into his Summa Theologica a few times from their place on my bookshelf. You may find him on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or the world wide web.

I first noticed him when I saw a few cartoons retweeted that made me laugh out loud. A few of my favorites are below.

Prayer Time > Free Time

Having logged off Facebook until after New Year’s in order to avoid Star Wars spoilers, and cutting way back on Twitter, I’ve got some more time on my hands. We are at the halfway point of Advent and Christmas will soon be here (no matter how much Madison Avenue tries to convince you that it’s already here…it’s not.) So what am I doing with that extra time each day?

How much time do Catholics spend in prayer? Prayer is a great gift that one should find joy in. The cultivation of virtue—which is the outcome of habit (habitus)—requires striving. It requires time. It demands that we set aside time for God in the midst of our daily lives. To have an active prayer life is the result of the habit of prayer.

To this end the Rosary embodies the call to a virtuous prayer life better than most prayers because of the time it takes to pray the Rosary. Time is the one thing we can never get enough of according to some people. And the more time spent reading, praying, or contemplating God, the less time one is “making something of themselves” in the material world. For all the wonders that God has done for us it would be fitting of our appreciation and understanding of God’s wonders and love to devote time to him throughout the day. From small things greater things come. (source)

Happy Advent! And I wish for you all a very Merry and Blessed Christmas!

Of Monsters and Men

As a follow up of sorts to yesterday’s post I’ve placed together three seemingly unrelated items that I read or came across today. The first, a quote from St. John Paul II is from a daily devotional book I use with Mass readings each day whether I’m able to attend or not. The second is from an article written by Karen Ullo for Dappled Things. And last is a new video put together for Josh Garrels. I’m including the lyrics below the video.

As JPII points out evil thrives when we choose to look the other way and prefer not to notice its existence. Ms. Ullo then discusses the power that fiction has to shape our souls and to convey the existence of evil and, most importantly when the monsters come, the meaning of Christ’s redemption to the world. She uses Frankenstein (Mary Shelley), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Victor Hugo) and Dracula (Bram Stoker) to illustrate her point. And finally, in the lyrics of Josh’s song we see the struggle that we all go through as fallen humanity. We fall, we fight, we resist. Through God’s grace and the recognition and acknowledgement of the dark and its monsters we can finally find our way back to the light.

I cry at your feet, wounded for me
And all of the monsters and men
But here in your light
We can begin again

*****

There are times when the existence of evil among people is particularly apparent. Then it becomes even clearer that the powers of darkness that reside in and operate through man are larger than him.

It seems that people today almost do not want to see this problem. They do everything to put the existence of those ‘rulers of this world of darkness’, those ‘tactics of the devil’ referred to in the Epistle to the Ephesians, from their minds. Yet there are times in history when this reluctantly accepted truth of revelation and of Christian faith is completely manifest, almost tangible.

St. John Paul II, Address, May 3, 1987
From In Conversation with God, Volume 5 – Ordinary Time: Weeks 24-34, p.239

*****

It really should not come as a surprise that stories about monsters can be rich with Christian meaning. There is only one story that matters in Christianity: Adam’s first sin leads to humanity’s demise, but Jesus comes to save us through His death and resurrection. It is a blood-soaked tale that features more than its fair share of monstrosity. And there is this: as ridiculous and devoid of metaphysical meaning as most modern horror stories may be, horror remains the one genre in our “post-Christian” society where it is not laughable to call upon Christ and the Church in one’s hour of need. When the monsters come, no one flees to the protection of the local non-denominational minister. When the monsters come, our society still knows that only the fullness of Truth entrusted to the Bride of Christ can challenge them. Our job as Catholics is not to convince the world that such hocus-pocus is beneath us. Our job is to convince them that the monsters are real. The monsters live inside each and every one of us: malformed, lonely, hopeless, vengeful monsters with their fangs latched deep into our hearts. Once we recognize them for what they really are, we know, deep in our bones, that it is only Christ crucified who can drive them out.

From The Catholicity of Monsters, by Karen Ullo. Dappled Things.

*****

Born Again

I came into the world, into the wild
No place for a child
Used my voice to howl
With the ghouls of night
In the dying light

Had to learn to get what I need
In the dark, empty
Instincts are guiding me
Like a beast to some blood
And I can’t get enough

I’m losing control; my body, my soul
Are slowly fading away
But I’m ready now
To feel the power of change

I’m my mother’s child
I’m my father’s son
It took me awhile
But my time has come
To be born again

Running scared in between what I hate
And what I need
Savior and enemy are both trying
To take my soul
And I can’t hide no more

Stumble out to the light
Raise my fist up to fight
Then I catch your eye
So full of love
Lord, what have I done?

I cry at your feet, wounded for me
And all of the monsters and men
But here in your light
We can begin again

I’m my mother’s child
I’m my father’s son
It took me a while
But my time has come
To be born again

Visit Josh Garrels website for more information: http://joshgarrels.com

The Gift

“I have been a lucky man. To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvellous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that come from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses—that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.” – Pablo Neruda, poet

Read the full quote, an excerpt from Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, on Heather King’s blog.

Speaking of gratitude, I’ve been grateful for the gift of Maria McKee performing since I was a lad of 17. Thirty years on and she still is, better than ever.

You can trip smug smiling in your worn-out shoes
Cast away the rhythm of eternity’s fugue
Grapple with the tongue of hope till it abandons you
But you can’t deny a gift

Falter at the well, making heroes out of ghosts
Stuffing yourself on thankless boasts
But I have faith in your withering soul
‘Cause you can’t deny a gift
Oh, no, you can’t deny a gift

A gift of one and a gift to all
The wings to soar and not to fall
A gift of light in the abyss
Higher ground above the pit
The choice to live that is a gift
That is a gift, that is a gift, that is a gift

Though this gift lacks frivolous flair
It doesn’t sparkle in the sun and requires little care
It’s one of volume enough to spare
Throw down defense and we will share
Throw down defense and we will share

A gift of one and a gift to all
The wings to soar and not to fall
A gift of light in the abyss
Higher ground above the pit
The choice to live that is a gift
That is a gift, that is a gift, that is a gift

A gift of one and a gift to all
The wings to soar and not to fall
A gift of light in the abyss
Higher ground above the pit
The choice to live that is a gift
That is a gift, that is a gift, that is a gift
That is a gift, that is a gift, that is a gift

Songwriter: Maria McKee
Lyrics © BMG RIGHTS MANAGEMENT US, LLC

Music and Silence

The sound of music is not, like the sound of words, opposed, but rather parallel to silence.

It is as though the sounds of music were being driven over the surface of silence.

Music is silence, which in dreaming begins to sound.

Silence is never more audible than when the last sound of music has died away.

Music is far-ranging, and could occupy the whole of space. This does not in fact happen, for music occupies space very slowly, shyly, rhythmically, always returning to the same basic melodies so that it might seem that the sounds of music never moved away at all, that music were everywhere and yet always in a definite limited place. In music the distance and the nearness of space, the limitless and the limited are all together in one gently unity that is a comfort and a benefaction to the soul. For however far the soul may range in music it is everywhere protected and brought home safely again. That is also why music has such a calming effect on nervous people: it brings a wideness to the soul in which the soul can be without fear. – Max Picard, The World of Silence

*****

My sheet music looked like this, but with a larger number.

My sheet music looked like this, but with a larger number.

As a trombonist and member of the deeper brass section in my high school band I was used to doing a lot of waiting. Not so much during pep band, jazz band, or marching band. It was while performing larger classical pieces for concert band that I got in a lot of time practicing counting entire measures of rest. I cannot recall the name of the piece but I remember that for the first 4-5 dozen measures I sat at concert rest and counted silently to myself while the woodwinds and other sections played on. When we did finally raise our horns and began to play there was an immediate impact to the mood of the piece. And then we fell silent once more…at rest.

You can have each in their entirety in your life and be content, but you will not be whole. It is when you combine silence and music together that your horizons expand and your dreamscapes become so big and far-reaching that you find yourself reaching higher and farther than you believed possible.

As a life-long appreciator of music I have always felt the most impact or power comes from those moments where there is a pause just before the unleashing of sound. It is like the stillness just prior to a thunderstorm on the plains. You can feel the humidity drop. The temperature too is cooled by a growing breeze, and you feel a chill on your arm and sweat. You smell the rain as it approaches. In this way the thunderstorm washes over your senses much like a wall of sound in music after a period of rest.

Wichita wall cloud (4/15/2015) Photo credit

Wichita wall cloud (4/15/2015) Photo credit

Worship and prayer is the same for me. I respect a person’s preference for the larger stadiums full of people with rock bands on stage blasting out tunes for God while the faithful stand swaying with hands in the air reading the lyrics on large screens. It’s just not effective for me.

I prefer the silence the Mass affords me to listen for that “still, small voice” of God while on my knees. This is offset by the prayers of the priest on our behalf, the readings from Sacred Scripture, and the Mass hymns at different parts of the celebration. It is an annoyance to me when our musical liturgists feel the need to fill every moment of the Mass with sound, as if the congregation will lose interest or become distracted by silence. The Divine Office prayed for two millennia by monks, nuns, priests and the laity affords the same variety. Spoken prayer, chanted psalmody, hymns, and instances of silence. Lectio Divina, a strong and age-old method of “praying the Scriptures” also employs silence with spoken words.

If you don’t experience silence, how can you appreciate the sound? If all you hear is noise, how long before you tune it out and that’s all it becomes: a droning, white noise buzzing in your ear.  For me, I enjoy the rest. I prefer the silence as part of the prayer.

It is, as Gandalf told Pippin in The Return of the King, “the deep breath before the plunge.”

Spending the night at the Spitfire Grill

(Two posts in two days. Time for a vacation!)

Buster and I found ourselves alone at home last night. My wife had taken our two kids to her parent’s farm to spend the night so that today they could help in putting up sweet corn. After their departure I fed Buster and as it was an unusually cooler evening sat outside to pray the Divine Office. Visions of a night to myself bounced around my head but in the end it was what would be considered by cynics as a boring evening.

I grilled two steaks and a monster loaded baked potato, almost ruining the steaks by deciding to experiment with garlic pepper. I had to hunt for but eventually found a bag of cheese curl chips hidden by my wife behind the cereal boxes on the pantry shelves downstairs. I washed it all down with the last beer in the house, a leftover from my son’s going away party last Labor Day before he left for boot camp. As I drank the last beer from that fun day of friends and sudden thunderstorm it occurred to me that it took me almost a full year to consume the 15-18 cans of beer that had remained from that day. Thirty years ago that wouldn’t have lasted a weekend. Times change, we change, and hopefully for the better.

I told my wife that I was going to use the occasion to watch a movie or two that I normally cannot while the kids are home. I’ve had The Raven in my Netflix queue for a year and learned the other day that it will be no longer available to stream after August 1. There were Lone Survivor or American Sniper to consider.

Then I remembered a DVD I purchased almost two years ago and had yet to watch. Given what I’d written yesterday about staying positive I decided that I didn’t want to watch any horror, suspense or war. I opted instead for the quiet storytelling that I’d read about in The Spitfire Grill. Buster curled upon my lap and on the quilt my grandmother had made for me over thirty-five years ago. Sitting in the dark of my home I was taken to small town Maine and to the story of Percy Talbot and her impact on the small town where she is seeking a fresh start in life.

You can view the film’s trailer here.

spitfire dvd coverGood storytelling does not have to be overly dramatic. To be sure, there is drama in Percy’s story, but it is the kind of drama we are more likely to encounter in our every day lives. Small town gossips. Running and working a struggling small business. Dealing with our past, our regrets and managing to move forward with each new day. Sin, healing and redemption. Many use movies to escape from their lives and I’m no different. But I believe there is still a place for us all in the small stories that are going on all around us if we but open our eyes and our hearts to them. This was a story I wish I’d written.

I won’t write about the plot here and instead encourage you to seek out and take in the story that unfolds in Gilead, Maine and at The Spitfire Grill. This is not a “chick flick” but is a very real and human story. I see that it has been turned into a musical and has been seen on many stages since this 1996 independent gem of a film and Sundance Award winner was released. I must admit that I can’t imagine anyone other than the film’s actors in the roles of these characters. They all did a terrific job of capturing the mannerisms and even dialect of small town Mainers which I have myself experienced during two visits to the state. I will be watching this film again soon, this time joined by my family.

Buster and I capped off our night as bachelors with a final patrol of the perimeter (Buster) and a torch-lit scotch on the deck (me). In the film there is a beautiful scene shot in the mountains of Vermont during which Percy sings a few lines from a traditional Black-American spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead.” (from Jeremiah 8:22). I found myself humming it under the clouds and moonlight.

There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin sick soul.

Sometimes I feel discouraged,
And think my work’s in vain,
But then the Holy Spirit
Revives my soul again.

If you can’t preach like Peter,
If you can’t pray like Paul,
Just tell the love of Jesus,
And say He died for all.

Running. Working. Struggling. Dealing. Managing.

This is our story. The healing will come if we will only seek it.

I know I am.

Addendum: During the course of writing this post I looked up some reviews of the movie. Talk about being slapped across the face by rampant cynicism. It seems to me that is one of the biggest obstacles we face today and I’ve been working hard to overcome my own. I stand by what I’ve written above and still recommend this film. We overcome this world’s cynicism by taking a break from the world allowing ourselves to heal from the wounds inflicted by others or by ourselves. Stories like this one help us along that path.

scotch on deck

Scotch under the stars

Gardening at Night

MATINS
by Louise Glück

You want to know how I spend my time?
I walk the front lawn, pretending
to be weeding. You ought to know
I’m never weeding, on my knees, pulling
clumps of clover from the flower beds: in fact
I’m looking for courage, for some evidence
my life will change, though
it takes forever, checking
each clump for the symbolic
leaf, and soon the summer is ending, already
the leaves turning, always the sick trees
going first, the dying turning
brilliant yellow, while a few dark birds perform
their curfew of music. You want to see my hands?
As empty now as at the first note.
Or was the point always
to continue without a sign?

gardeningglove

Photo credit: Enviromom

Accompanying music that “works” for me with this poem at this particular moment in time:

The Ragamuffin Road

Recently I was asked how I’m doing and why I haven’t written much of late. After thinking about it for a moment I reached back into my vocabulary and dusted off this word:

Image source: Google

Image source: Google

Initially I blamed my listlessness on the fact that we had just endured a draining ninety days from March through May. During that time both boys began their respective baseball seasons, my wife underwent major surgery followed by a delicate recovery period, and graduation and a graduation party loomed ahead in May. April brought more baseball, a prom, and graduation planning. And in May I frantically worked to finish up landscaping in the yard, more planning, more baseball, and finally the big events themselves at the same time that my oldest son’s team went on a roll that culminated with them winning their second state championship in three years.

So yeah…June is a time to exhale. Maybe I still am. The month is only half-over after all.

But I’m also numb. And as I watch the events around our country and world spiral out of control while nurtured on by the policies of our current government I grow tense. With the realization that there’s little I can do about it (and being as tired as I am) I shut down. The alternative is to froth at the mouth in angry rage. (That would be the hysterical fanaticism mentioned in the above image.) Rage at the things being done as a result of this government’s policies. Rage at those who voted for it twice while at the same time saying that those who didn’t were on the wrong side of history. Rage at their now being strangely silent. And I wonder: are they silent because they are embarrassed, silent because they are afraid of admitting they were wrong, or silent because deep down they agree with the nation-destroying actions of the man they helped elect twice?

So while numb and wanting to avoid having my blood pressure so high that my eyes bleed I have chosen to stay quiet and listen. Not to the news, social media or the like. But to God and what He is saying for me to hear if I quiet myself and listen. And it is working.

In many ways I’m ready to retire and do some traveling with my wife. Instead I find myself with a suddenly open calendar and time on my hands looking for projects to do. I’ve considered constructing a gazebo in the back corner of our yard, building a second level to the deck, paving a patio extension and firepit area, and building a doghouse. And that’s just in July and for the outside of our home.

But I realize that I’m looking to fill my time and my space with things. My oldest son’s time at home is nearly spent and soon he’ll leave and a hole will exist where he was. Life as we’ve known it and our family’s dynamic since the birth of our daughter will change as he leaves. Son #2 will move into the recently-vacated bedroom downstairs and my daughter plans the complete redecoration of her own room.

“I’m going to paint it pink, purple, red and white Dad.” It’s going to look like a unicorn exploded in there, but I’ll love it.

So I’m looking to fill a hole in my heart with things. Same as it ever was. However, I’ve been around this block already and recognized this road. This is why I’ve stopped all of it and am listening. Stopped all the planning and researching. Because I can’t retire yet. We can’t travel unfettered as we wish or spend all our time accumulating things. We still have two more children to provide for and raise. My work continues.

Because of this my time is spent reading, praying, and listening.

In other words I’m working on filling this hole in my heart with more of what, or who, should be there in the first place. While enjoying the cool spring/early summer days I’ve spent more than a few mornings and evenings sitting outside in conversation with God. I’m listening. Listening to God’s voice in the psalms and prayers of the Divine Office and in the Gospels themselves.

"Morning Offering". Image source: Me

“Morning Offering”. Image source: Me

I’m also reading a book that I inadvertently left off my summer reading list. I first attempted to read The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning over ten years ago but quit half-way through. It was brought to mind recently when I watched the movie Ragamuffin: The True Story of Rich Mullins. (As an aside, I plan to write a review of this movie soon. Rich Mullins was, and still is, one of my favorite singer/songwriters. This movie reminded me how much I miss him since his death in 1997.) Unable to locate my original copy of Brennan’s book two weeks ago, I went to Barnes & Noble and purchased another. I’ve been reading it and highlighting it non-stop ever since. Here are but three of the many selections I highlighted within the first chapter alone:

*****

????????And Grace calls out, You are not just a disillusioned old man who may die soon, a middle-aged woman stuck in a job and desperately wanting to get out, a young person feeling the fire in the belly begin to grow cold. You may be insecure, inadequate, mistaken, or potbellied. Death, panic, depression, and disillusionment may be near you. But you are not just that. You are accepted. Never confuse your perception of yourself with the mystery that you really are accepted. – page 28

We want ever-sharp spirituality—push, pull, click, click, one saint that quick—and attempt to cultivate a particular virtue at a given point in time. Prudence in January, humility in February, fortitude in March, temperance in April. Score cards are provided for toting up gains and losses. The losses should diminish if you expect to meet charity in May. Sometimes May never comes. For many Christians, life is a long January. – page 31

In essence, there is only one thing God asks of us—that we be men and women of prayer, people who live close to God, people for whom God is everything and for whom God is enough. That is the root of peace. – page 46.

*****

That is the peace I’m looking for. It can’t be found in social media, the news, the opinions of others or in a gazebo. It is found in prayer. It is found in communion with God. God is enough.

Moses spent forty years in exile before going back to Egypt to demand that Pharaoh let his people go. Israel then spent another forty years wandering in the desert before they were allowed entry into the promised land. Jesus spent forty days being tempted in the desert before launching his ministry three years prior to his death and resurrection.

I’m forty-six. I’ve wandered a long time. Much of that wandering was aimless and without purpose.

I’ve had my long January. I’m listening with purpose and know that action will follow while on this road. Action with a purpose.

I am a ragamuffin.